Striking a Balance between East and West Medicine



The adoption of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture is fast gaining popularity and has been widely acclaimed as a possible answer to the rising medical costs faced by many economies in the 21st century. Based on more than 5,000 years of experience and empirical evidence, Chinese people have been dependent on Chinese Medicine to cure diseases and to protect themselves against epidemics.

Among the over 300 types of traditional medicines practised by different races, Chinese Medicine has emerged as one which is the most systematic and well documented. It includes a wide range of herbal medicines, devices, massage techniques and diets, and has been used as mainstream or alternative medical health systems in over 160 countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2003, officially endorsed 31 diseases, symptoms or conditions that can be effectively treated using acupuncture, an important method of treatment under Chinese Medicine.

The understanding of illnesses and diseases

Before the introduction of Western Medicine to China during the early 19th century by Protestant missions, the only medicinal system available in China was what we know today as TCM. Official records show that it has successfully overcome many pandemics and outspread of diseases. The origin of TCM is deeply rooted in the lives of commoners like you and me. Referencing all Chinese literature that has survived for generations, we will discover the mention of Chinese medicine theories and applications, and this further adds to its dimensions. We can find herbal formula and herbal diet cuisine associated with literature such as A Dream of Red Mansions and Romance of Three Kingdoms. For something that has survived, evolved and developed through thousands of years, it is more than science; it is philosophical and is very much an integral part of Chinese culture around the world.

Many philosophers in China such as Lao Zi 老子and Confucius孔子, are great practitioners of Chinese Medicine too. Many of their thoughts on Chinese Medicine that were captured in medical texts, form an integral part of TCM theory today. The key concept behind TCM is the state of balance, which is the foundation of Confucianism and Holism. Here, all elements are linked and are interdependent of one another; the concept yin and yang 阴阳, is a key foundation of Taoism. The occurrence of illnesses and diseases is the result of an imbalance or the interdependency between the different elements becoming unstable. Chinese Medicine adopts a big picture, that is, a macro approach in addressing the view of illnesses and diseases. The objective of diagnostic approach is to discover the cause of the imbalance and instability, and through TCM, attempt to bring that “patient” back to a balance state.

From a Western Medicine point of view, the ancient practice of medicine in Greek medical systems mirrored that of Chinese Medicine, acknowledging that there is art to medicine as well as science, as written in the Hippocratic Oath. However, the “art” element has  been very much ignored with the discovery of biological treatments, such as antibiotics, along with developments in chemistry, genetics, and lab technology (such as X-ray, MRI etc). This has led to what we know as modern medicine today with scientific evidence. The occurrence of illnesses and diseases is the result of bacteria or virus attacks or the degeneration of specific organs within the body. Western Medicine adopts a specialized approach in addressing the view of illnesses and diseases. It requires identification of the specific bacteria or virus that causes the illness or the degeneration of specific organs or genetic reasons behind the occurrence of the illnesses, so as to prescribe the targeted medicine and treatment protocol for the “patient”.

The diagnostic approaches

Western Medicine today relies on many test reports to assist doctors in the diagnoses of their patients’ illnesses. While common ailments such as cough, cold, running nose and so on can be easily diagnosed through observation and simple survey-like questions, more complex illnesses and diseases will need reports to be prepared and analysed by labs in order to identify the causes of the illnesses. There exist many devices and tools to assist doctors in handling such diagnoses as well as home-grade self-diagnostic versions such as thermometer, high blood pressure meter and glucometer. Western doctors rely heavily on the indicators presented by lab reports from such devices.

From a Chinese Medicine point of view, the human body is a complete system; integrating in harmony with the greater systems of social and cultural environments. When the balance between the individual and the external environment is not working in harmony, functional impairments will occur with symptoms that include fatigue, numbness, pain, fever and chills. TCM practitioners will use a systematic approach of collecting symptoms presented by the patient, a process known as “Syndrome Differentiation”, to draw a diagnostic conclusion of the individual’s condition and hence prescribe appropriate treatment.

Personally speaking, I believe the test reports from labs including X-ray and MRI are important medical evidences and are useful in drawing conclusions to the illness being diagnosed. In my clinical practice, I often request patients to show me their reports or recommend them to go for these tests to confirm the diagnosis.

The treatment methodologies

The diagnostic approaches adopted by the western doctor through reports generated from the labs and indicators captured from medical devices were consider to be scientific and evidence-based by patients nowadays, as compare to the diagnostic finding concluded by TCM practitioners through syndrome differentiation. The western medicine required the corresponding illness indicators, such as high blood pressure and diabetics, to be evidenced before the treatment options which rely on drugs, physiotherapy and surgery to alleviate symptoms and cure disease can be prescribed. However, there will be times when the information in the reports and the symptoms experience by the patients differ, the irony face by most patients will be a situation where the western doctor is not able to prescribe good treatment options for the patient even if the patient is suffering.

These conditions are defined as a state of sub-health by WHO; whereby the condition of the individual is between health and disease when all necessary physical and chemical indexes test negative, but the person experiences discomfort and even pain. Western medicine is at its wits’ end when dealing with such conditions.

TCM’s syndrome differentiating diagnostic approaches are well documented by their practitioners over thousands of years and are perfected through generations by legendary physicians such as Hua Tuo 华佗 and Li Shi Zhen 李时珍. The approach requires TCM practitioners to treat each patient as a unique individual and to draw diagnostic conclusions that tailor to the patient’s syndrome manifestation during the time of consultation, while relying heavily on the practitioner’s observation skills supported by established references of case studies. Patients with the same illness diagnosed by Western doctors, who seek TCM treatment, will most likely be prescribed with different prescriptions based on the individual body’s constitution and the syndrome presented during the consultation. The treatment options include herbal diet, exercise, acupuncture, medicinal herbs and at times, minor surgery.

Such an approach to treatment shows the strength of Chinese Medicine in dealing with sub-health conditions and can play a complementary, if not main, role in the prevention of further deterioration and health maintenance of patients suffering pre-chronic or chronic illnesses through detail diagnostics of the overall body conditions and derivative analysis of the symptoms.


While there are differences in Chinese and Western Medicine as outlined in this article, both medicinal systems exist with the same objective: To help patients be cured of illnesses and diseases. The following extract from the Hippocratic Oath applies to both practitioners of Chinese and Western Medicine. “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.”

This article written by Dr Clement Ng first appeared in Raffles Marina’s Magazine – Nautique Jan-Feb 2016.


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